Wed
Apr 6 2011 11:26am

Cowboy Bebop Re-watch: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Cowboy Bebop episode Bohemian Rhapsody

Like certain anime characters I could mention, your erstwhile Bebop blogger has a nasty habit of coming back from almost certain disaster to wreak further havoc. In that spirit: HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?

Episode 14, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has nothing really to do with either Queen or the events of the song. Taking a gander at the lyrics reveal how closely they pertain to Spike Spiegel’s life:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see,
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go, Little high, little
low,
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to
me

Spike utters these words, or variations thereof, throughout the series. He does so in this episode, too, when Jet warns him of a possible trap engineered by the bounty they’re pursuing. “Whatever happens, happens,” Spike replies.

After the Spike-fest of the last two episodes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” focuses on Ed and Jet. And in contrast to Spike’s strategy of fighting his way through a problem, we watch Jet calmly execute his strategy for dealing with the Gate Corporation, and Ed doggedly pursue an online chess game with a mysterious opponent who, naturally, has something major to do with the episode’s plot. That she’s never really played before doesn’t matter—she learns the game by playing it, losing, and playing again. If you want insight into Ed’s genius, this is it. She’s willing to try things she might not be good at, with the firm (and perhaps irrational) belief that she can become good at them with enough effort. (I sometimes think that Ed’s mastery of the hacking arts began not with an urge to learn programming technique, but with a profound desire to bend the machine to her will.)

As episodes go, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is basically filler: in order to earn their bounty, the crew of the Bebop have to nab the mastermind of a long-term scheme to defraud hyperspace gate travelers of their money and data. Working separately (it was Faye’s idea, naturally), they’ve managed to net most of the scammers, but they’re each frustrated in their attempts to take the hunt to the next level. Their only clues are pieces from an electronic chess set. Ed promptly ganks one of the pieces, and uses it to start playing online chess. Insert facepalm here: the criminals were using these pieces to communicate with the mastermind!

It turns out that the mastermind is no longer the master of his own mind—he’s Chessmaster Hex, a former chess wiz who went to work for the Gate Corporation in its early days. Before the gates went live, he warned of safety and security issues, for which he was fired. As revenge, he released key information about the gates online as a brochure, sort of an Anarchist’s Cookbook for hyperspace travelers. Now various hackers phreak the Gates, using the manual to skim money off the top of Gate tolls. Meanwhile, Hex himself is off with the Three Old Guys, smoking insane amounts of pot and playing chess with adolescents whose genius reflects his bygone promise.

Faye and Spike find this out once they try to apprehend Hex. It doesn’t go well. They’re followed by another hunter named Jonathan, who lost too much money to Hex’ scheme. He blasts his way through the dive where Hex lives only discover that the old man doesn’t give a damn. This fact proves to Spike that the old man “isn’t there any more,” and that they should leave him alone. Whereas the crew was divided at the beginning of the episode, by the end they all agree that letting Hex go is the best course. Jet promises the executives at the Gate Corporation that his crew will never divulge the truth about the gates if Hex’ former employers call off the bounty. “We’d hate for Ed to lose her favourite chess partner, wouldn’t we?”

What I enjoy most about this episode are the gadgets: a microphone embedded in a cigarette, the online chess piece that stores multiple games and players’ data, the all-too-vulnerable gates. This episode relies almost entirely on McGuffins to move it along, and they’re fun little gadgets that have since come into being. The chess piece is a combination USB key/console memory card, the gate problem is one step away from ATM scanning and the bugged cigarette has probably been around since Castro. And it’s not unusual to have a heist-oriented plot like this one focus on the neat little devices that make it all happen. That said, as an episode in the larger arc of the series it always leaves me a little cold.

That’s probably because the next one, “My Funny Valentine,” is just so damn sad.


Madeline Ashby has been busy, lately, but promises to blog about the trials and tribulations of Faye Valentine very soon.

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4 comments
Fenric25
1. Fenric25
Glad to see the Cowboy Bebop re-watch is back! Hope it keeps up, I love this show, love the commentary and insight that is provided, too. :)
j p
2. sps49
Welcome back! I think the series has gone around a couple of times since your last post :)

We do get some nice character development and background. You can't enjoy a cake that's all frosting.
B T
3. amphibian
I've long been fascinated by CB and the particular manner in which the show's creators chose to present their stories. I clicked on the link as it scrolled up on the main page and liked what you wrote - but felt as if it could use some more time and thought.

So I then read every review you wrote for Tor and was surprised to arrive back here much more satisfied. If you keep writing these recaps and thoughts, I'll keep reading them.

Thematically, CB has always shown how human inventiveness is a bit odd in that we like to try to create new devices that let us act on longstanding/traditional/instinctual desires. They're new tools for old tasks and even if we're in a future with hoverboards, people can be priced out or realize that there's hidden value in having things the old way.

I know you've been bugged about the inconsistent future in CB, but I think most of the audience is a bit more forgiving than you regarding those things. The CB solar system presumably has tens of billions of people going back and forth on their home planets, between orbitals, between moons and asteroids.

Permanent settlements probably resemble mining towns in many places and despite the potential explosion in natural resources available to an enormous chunk of the population, it doesn't seem as if the money has trickled down or the majority have been able to exploit those resources to nudge beyond the poverty level. The big cities that do exist are likely fantastically wealthy and would presumably have strong permanent police forces and not need bounty hunters or have problems that require bounty hunters to solve. Thus in the years the show covers (Ed's aging is a little suspect here, but hey...), we see a ton of small towns (and Faye and Spike probably get it on several times in the spaces in between episodes).

It's a very grim future, as opposed to... Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, and in that context, the treasuring of physical objects (valuing emotional connections and backgrounds, as well as the tangible reminders of such) over digital porn/photos/searches makes a certain kind of sense. It's a lonely set of societies that CB goes through and when people bump into each other, they often talk or interact - even if just to feel less lonely or more alive.

Hope my few thoughts spur more discussion and some more great recaps.
Kylie Thomson
4. salimbol
Huzzah, the Bebop re-read is back on again! You've just reminded me that I absolutely, positively need to re-watch the series ASAP; it's been an appallingly long time since I last watched it (though a lot of it seems to have imprinted itself on my mind very strongly nevertheless). "Bohemian Rhapsody" may never have registered much with me in terms of the overall series but, like every Bebop episode, there's plenty of good stuff there once you go looking, and I do like the - hm, gentle wistfulness? - that suffuses the old man's scenes. I'm looking forward to your review of "My Funny Valentine" :-).

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